Revenge of the Sith

The dream is over.
After nearly three decades, the world has finally been released from George Lucas’ visionary quest with the sixth and final installment of his Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith. Like prisoners escaping Plato’s cave, we now stumble forward, rubbing our eyes, blinking, trying to make sense of a fairy tale that has held us transfixed for more than a generation.
The original Star Wars movies were anachronistic. Their unambiguous moral lessons felt naïve and a little silly against the faded denim backdrop of the seventies and early eighties. Science fiction films of that time mimicked our fears –of being eaten (Soylent Green), turned into machines (Blade Runner), or transformed into animals (Planet of the Apes) – not our idealistic fantasies. Any positive interpretation of the future, or even a noble struggle against the military industrial complex, had been burned clean by the 1960s.
Star Wars lifted us out of the quagmire of the seventies by presenting a myth we could still understand, one stylized and simplified until it’s meaning couldn’t be misinterpreted. Using tropes from ancient mythology and drawing on his own childhood watching science fiction serials and reading pulps, Lucas created an alternative world for those of us who stumbled through the mean days of the 1970s as vulnerable children.
The two films that followed (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) showed how the young could tap into an ancient and noble power to topple an empire of machines. For people of my generation, the Star Wars saga (combined with the unlikely figure of Ronald Reagan) rescued us from the malaise of the 1970s, revealed a path that led out of the failures of 60s utopias and into a future where good and evil were not relativistic terms, but concrete forces in the world.
Sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, Lucas released the first prequel to Star Wars, The Phantom Menace. A weird film about Anakin Skywalker, a boy with precocious gifts who would someday transform into Darth Vader – an evil henchman from the original trilogy – Menace seemed muddled and confused, the creepy dream of someone unable to deal with his mommy issues.
Lucas followed up Menace with Attack of the Clones, a plodding political yarn describing the ways a representative republic disintegrates. Somehow we had to infer that the spiritual descent of Aniken would mirror the political consolidation of the republic into a galactic empire. It’s difficult to know from Clones whether it’s Anakin’s need to control and dominate or his fierce passion that leads him to the dark path.
Revenge of the Sith brings the cycle around, showing how Aniken assumes the character of the dark master Darth Vader and leaving us at the birth of the two main characters from the original Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker and his twin sister Princess Leia Organa.
Although some familiar tropes are repeated throughout the series – man’s need to retain his humanity in the face of a mechanical universe and the son’s need to confront and forgive his father and choose the masculine over the feminine, to name two – the films also contradict one another, defying the ultimate myth that Lucas had constructed the entire tale ahead of time. 
Although characters like the Jedi master Yoda pay lip service to the Force as a kind of detached power, the knights in Sith are fully engaged, loaded and ready for battle. The passivity embraced by Obi-Wan Kenobi in his epic battle against Vader in A New Hope is all but forgotten when the frog-like Yoda plays frisbee with the evil Sith lord Darth Sidious using saucer-shaped podiums at the intergalactic united nations.
The archetypical and simplified worldview of the original trilogy, hammered out by Lukas’ belief in the emerging New Age movement, did not translate to the prequels, but Sith is closer to the original than the earlier two films.
Sith’s ending lines up with the beginning of the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope, but rather than robbing the film of surprises, the theme of predestination reinforces the Oedipal myth that’s fully worked out in the Return of the Jedi and Vaders’ transformation feels epic and mythological, unlike the pedestrian bureaucratic power plays typified by Clones.  
The newest installment also does a much better job of using action to forward the drama than the first few movies in the series, but some important political nuances set up in Clones – such as the meaning of the war between the clone army and the mechanical horde of robots – are lost. As Sith spirals tighter and tighter, bringing us to the personal internal battle that created Vader, the vast social-political apparatus Lucas set up becomes irrelevant; a wasted effort.
In Clones we learned of a vast conspiracy in which the galactic senate allowed its power to be stripped away by a charismatic figure promising stability and peace. It’s sometimes difficult to identify the good guys from the bad guys in the murky aftermath of this Bush-like appropriation of power.
As defenders of the senate the Jedi order should be beyond reproach, but they’re caught off guard when Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) finally makes his move. Using the war as a means to usurp power from the collective, Palpatine understands the true nature of predestination and free will, and while Yoda muses over the ambiguities of events, the emperor shapes them, defining them to the general public. Worse still, the Jedis give into the moral uncertainty surrounding them, breaking their own rules and sinking so low as to turn their best warrior into a petty spy.
Aniken (Hayden Christensen) stands at the crossroad between unappealing roads, at a place that bears an uncanny resemblance to modern-day America. Following the Jedis means defying the will of the senate, but following the senate means turning his back on everything the body politic should be defending: Freedom, liberty and justice.
Palpatine shapes the question for Aniken, telling the young man that he understands the epic quest burning inside him, the search for “a life of significance – of conscious.” All the Jedis can offer Aniken is more of the same, confirmation of his own bitter confusion and the dangerous path ahead: The Sith can help him claim his future, even if it’s only to serve the rest of his life as a mechanical lap dog to the powers that be.
When Aniken dreams of his pregnant wife Padme (Natalie Portman) dying in childbirth, he turns to the Sith, not only because only Darth Sidious seems to have real power, but also because the Jedi order seems unable to act, paralyzed by uncertainty, confusion and fear. Padme confronts Aniken about the decision, telling him (basically) that all she needs is love, but the young man refutes this artifact of failed utopianism, saying, “Love cannot save us.”
My generation grew hard hearing how the hippies had failed to change the world – how love wasn’t enough – and Lucas gave us a myth that reminded us that love was all we had. We loved the dream of a world where bad guys wore black robes and good guys dressed in white, and cheered when Grand Pappy Reagan named the ultimate weapon again the evil soviet empire “Star Wars,” but we’re not arrogant enough to think this song is about us. 
Revenge of the Sith is about how youthful enthusiasm can be twisted and turned into a weapon. It’s about the march of empire and the necessity of believing in the enduring power of love, and it’s about darkness and terror in both the state and the heart of man.


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